Sway: The Web of Life
Brand Library & Art Center, Glendale
through June 14
Written by Betty Ann Brown
Expertly curated by Chenhung Chen for the Brand Library & Art Center, Sway gathers seven artists who immerse viewers in eccentric spaces composed of plastic and wire, paint, line and light. Chenhung Chen weaves electric cords and metal wires into complex abstract sculptures that drape across walls. Snezana Saraswati Petrovic uses plastic and dyed light to create shimmering environments veiled in lacy textures and brilliant color. Both Debbie Carlson and Gina Herrera assemble distressed and discarded materials–from stepladders to ribbons to rubber gloves–to erect whimsical sculptures in space. Linda Sue Price works in strips of neon; Echo Lew generates drawings of light. Only one of the group–A.M. Rousseau–works with the traditional materials of acrylic and pencil on paper (or clayboard).
Sway is largely sculptural and completely abstract–and yet, it all refers, poetically and though obliquely–to the interwoven networks that unite us all. Walking through the exhibition, viewers are offered appealing visual representations of what biologist Joan Z. Borysenko calls “the intricate web of life in which all things are expressions of a single Whole.” The Sway artworks seduce and surround us, submerging us in matrices of line and color in order to engage and enchant us. They remind us that we are one with insects, enmeshed in their cobwebs; that we are one with light, sailing through its revelations of time and space; that we all “see” the world in coterminous two- and three- dimensions, even as we occupy this one location, this one era.
As it happens, Sway includes six women and one man; several of the participants are from outside the parameters of European heritage. The diverse line-up situates the exhibition comfortably in Postmodernism, which has been characterized by an expansion of the artist population from white-male-dominance to the inclusion of women and people of color. Postmodernism has also been characterized by a move away from historically privileged oil-on-canvas paintings to the inclusion of materials formerly considered inappropriate for “proper” artmaking: Especially the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s introduced the use the textiles, ceramics, and other “craft” media, in order to deconstruct the outdated fine art/craft or high art/low art binary. (Think of the iconic works of Magdalena Abakanowicz and Miriam Schapiro.)
Debbie Carlson and Gina Herrera’s totemic constructions, assembled from recycled materials, recall the eccentric wrapped figures of early Feminist artists like Nancy Youdelman (who was part of the first Feminist Art Class taught by Judy Chicago) or Faith Ringgold. It should be noted that while both Youdelman and Ringgold used recognizable images–whether pieces of clothing or full bodies–Carlson and Herrera remain non-figurative in their oeuvre. Their focus on abstraction untethers the content from the role of narration, in order to enact a more contemplative mode. Carlson writes of the dignity inherent in the process of “gathering, binding, stitching, pulling and weaving” to make work; Herrera points to how re-purposing trash allows her to “seek connection and communion with a power greater than [her]self.”
Snezana Saraswati Petrovic also gathers, binds, stitches, pulls and weaves…but rather than using trash, she utilizes plastic. Her plastic ties, plastic bugs and plastic stars create bright, shiny, day-glow worlds that the artist calls “Bionic Gardens.” Plastic ties are looped and knotted to form “zones” that resemble both spider webs and coral skeletons. Recalling embroidery or gauze-like netting, her plastic “zones” appear natural–perhaps, natural for somewhere deep in the ocean or far out in space.
Although many of the Sway artists appear to be influenced by the Feminist Art Movement, especially its textile iteration, Chenhung in particular creates works that echo the excellent precedent of Ruth Asawa. (Born in California in 1926, the teenage Asawa was incarcerated, with her family, in a Japanese Interment Camp. Asawa learned to loop and “crochet” metal wire while on a trip to Mexico, then attended Black Mountain College, where she studied with, among others, Joseph Albers, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller.) Asawa’s metal “gardens” are composed of hanging geometric shapes suspended in surreal fields. In a similar fashion, Chenhung deploys metal wire as well as plastic-coated electric cords, to erect openwork sculptures that appear to float over floor and wall. The juxtapositions of densely clustered cords and sheer curtains of golden wire create contrasts that the artist compares to the Yin/Yang or Female/Male binaries.
All of the SWAY artists focus on line. None does so more than A.M. Rousseau, whose elegant arrangements of colored lines curl and sweep over bare white skies. Rousseau’s works are both athletic in their dynamic movement and contemplative in their insistently rhythmic repetition. The artist relates her work to calligraphy; others might see it like the weaving and reweaving of satin ribbons or silken tapestries.
Of course, line is also the essence of Linda Sue Price’s work. But in her case, the lines are created by tubes of neon, filled with colored light and illuminated to dynamic effect. Some of her compositions–especially her The Other Side of the Story diptych–recall Frank Stella’s late paintings in the energetic abutment of diverse shapes. (Think of Stella’s Cones and Pillars from 1984; His current exhibition in NYC continues the exuberance of his late 80s work.)
Perhaps the most interesting lines in SWAY are from Echo Lew, who uses light to create “marks” on paper. Lew arranges lights in his studio to create complex compositions for his camera. Most of his works in the exhibition are inverted from positive (where the light would be a “white” line on a black background) to negative (where the light appears to be “black” lines on a white ground.) Dense and richly varied, Lew’s “drawings” are endlessly fascinating. How DID he get light to behave that way? (For some reason, Lew’s work makes me think of that 1950 film of Picasso painting on a large pane of glass.) Even without insight into the process, Lew’s work is fascinating. The “lines” move and flow and, yes, sway across the white ground. Lew discusses the relationships between his creations in light and his experiences in meditation. “In my Zen Buddhist meditation practice, the lights bend like a reed in the breeze, or soar freely as a bird above a cliff, thousands of lights dancing in my mind. The inner world is clean, clear and full of fresh air. Thousands of lights move as a wave. The secrets of the universe are revealed.”
The myriad hypnotic worlds created by the gifted artists in SWAY remind us of Albert Einstein’s inimitable words:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”